The California blues/roots/rockabilly/R&B collective The Blasters should be required listening for any fan of American Music. During the 1980s, the band, along with contemporaries such as X and Los Lobos, bridged punk and roots music with an energy and enthusiasm that thrilled a legion of fans of all types of music.
That Blasters ethic is well-displayed on the 2002 “comeback” album “Trouble Bound,” a live disc featuring the four original Blasters on record for the first time 17 years: Phil Alvin, Dave Alvin, John Bazz and Bill Bateman.
The Red Devils were one of many offshoots from The Blasters, sharing at least half a dozen musicians over the two bands along with 13, the Blue Shadows, the Knitters and others. Devils fans will find much to love on “Trouble Bound,” along with some familiar touchstones: An edgy live sound, an exemplary cover of “I Wish You Would,” the wonderful Gene Taylor on keys, as well as the Blasters’ classic “Blue Shadows,” the song that ostensibly gave the Red Devils their original name.
But first and foremost is Bateman, playing here like an atomic clock, perfect and unstoppable. Bateman’s role in the Blasters was similar to his Devils’ duty — while Phil and Dave Alvin (or Lester Butler and Paul Size) got the spotlight, the songs are propelled by Bateman’s unflinching drive. Dave Alvin undoubtedly wrote some great rockers for the band, but it’s Bateman’s drums that make these tunes rock. He doesn’t play behind the beat, but is in fact so far on top of it that it sounds like he is scouting ahead for the band. There are times that Taylor’s piano fills pull like a tail behind the music.
The whiplash speed gives the disc a nervous, livewire vibe that’s tough to beat. Phil Alvin’s vocals, a whiny gospel moan that seems to hover a few feet over the band, supply the fervor, while Dave Alvin provides a tough, bluesy crunch that plays great with Taylor’s barrelhouse style.
The disc features a great mix of classic Blasters — the thrilling Hank Williams eulogy “Long White Cadillac,” the timeless/timely “Common Man” — alongside well-picked R&B gems, including Little Willie John’s stop-time “I’m Shakin'” and Johnny “Guitar” Watson’s uptempo ode to laying down, “Too Tired.”
A particular highlight is “Dark Night,” a meditation on small-town race relations (not vampires). Dave Alvin ups the lyrical ante with the story of a girl who ends up with a “new boy” in town, and the unpleasant reaction from the locals that follows. Alvin’s frantic guitar solo almost comes unhinged, driving the point home.
The set ends with the holy trinity of The Blasters canon: The mission statement “American Music,” Lieber and Stoller’s “One Bad Stud” and “Marie Marie,” The Blasters’ lasting contribution to modern rock and roll, a song played by bar bands nightly around the country.
The Red Devils were just one of several bands that benefited from the foundation put down by The Blasters. “Trouble Bound” is a great disc for Devils fans who want to go deeper still into exciting roots rock and roll.